Resetting Your Research Agenda

Even while staying home during the pandemic, you can advance it through small productivity moves, writes Christine Tulley.

April 2, 2020
 
 
Istockphoto.com/feodora Chiosen

While shifting face-to-face classes to online formats has been a major focus of colleges and universities during the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Inside Higher Ed article notes that working from home affects scholarly productivity as well.

As a faculty development coordinator, I regularly face questions such as: Do conference presentations that get canceled still count for tenure? Should I pull my manuscript from a journal whose editor notes manuscript reviews are “temporarily suspended” and submit it somewhere else? Is the tenure clock even still ticking this semester? The coronavirus pandemic has prompted more questions than answers about the impact of staying home on academic productivity.

It’s unlikely that scholarly productivity habits will look the same while sheltering in place. I research writing productivity, so I’ve given interviews about how I like to write in the library on our campus, away from distraction. Like many others, I’m now working under a stay-in-place order and need to figure out a way to write from home. I know of a faculty member who can’t conduct research because his lab is locked down and another who researches with her undergraduate students at a local archive. Neither can keep working on those projects, and both have had to shift to others temporarily.

For many of us home with children, it’s also unlikely that several hours of quiet time even exist for research or writing. Everyone I know with kids, from toddlers to newly returned college students, is making slime, building Lego villages, baking or having impromptu dance parties in the kitchen (family only, of course). And when colleagues aren’t doing that, they are homeschooling or visiting several grocery stores in a row in search of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Still others are helping elderly parents or neighbors. In short, many of us do not have the mental bandwidth to keep working as we did before. And even if we do, many of us can’t use our workspaces or rely on previous writing rituals.

Academic life will no doubt be disrupted for weeks or months. Both graduate students and faculty members need specific strategies for moving forward. If you want to keep a toe in your scholarly productivity pool, what can you do?

Reprioritize projects. I wrote in another article about the usefulness of having a master scholarly plan that tracks all of your projects. (Click here for a sample.) Take a look at all upcoming conferences, deadlines and projects you want to do. Ask what can be done at home and, if necessary, online. Move those projects to the front of the queue. A chapter for an edited collection due in September would probably be a higher priority than a conference presentation in June, especially if it is unclear if that conference will take place.

What new projects can be started or brainstormed while you are waiting to get back to your lab? What grants or funding opportunities can you seek out and what applications can be started? What can logistically be accomplished with children underfoot, elderly relatives to take care of and lack of quiet time? You may not be able to do everything, but you probably can do at least one thing.

Increase your online presence. Apply for an ORCID iD to ensure your research is identified with you. I finally did this, and it took about two hours to develop a complete profile. Look through connections on LinkedIn and accept the ones you have been meaning to. Make new connections. Develop a Google Scholar profile. If appropriate, post a preprint of your research to get feedback. Post one of the online lectures you are already doing for your students on YouTube to help other instructors. Finally get around to developing a personal website.

Today’s academic market often calls for faculty members to serve as their own PR agents in order to continue to feed publication and presentation pipelines. Many of these tasks can be done as small steps and still offer forward progress.

Complete professional service tasks. Finish those manuscript reviews you agreed to do and allow others’ work to move through publication system. Read the books you agreed to review for a best-book award and enjoy looking at new scholarship. Review a policy statement for a professional organization committee. Nominate a colleague’s work for an award. Complete an external review for tenure. All earn goodwill for the future.

Play the long game. Look up deadlines for projects far off in the future. Put dates on your calendar and reminder deadlines to prompt you to keep working along the way. Start writing your annual self-evaluation report even though it isn’t due until June. Update your CV with all of the conferences and publications that aren’t yet listed. Start drafting narrative statements for tenure applications due in the fall. Teach yourself how to use a citation manager or a data analytics tool now to save time later. Today’s global pause is an opportunity to work on tasks that are continually put off but would make your academic life far easier if done thoughtfully and ahead of time.

Catch up. Take that plastic off the latest unread journal issue and dig in. See if anyone has scooped your research and figure out how to incorporate that work into your literature review. Read a few new digital articles for your research now that JSTOR and university presses at Michigan and MIT have offered increased open access during the pandemic. Check out preprints and learn about emerging research. Catch up on podcast episodes related to your academic projects. (My longtime favorite is The History of Ancient Greece.) I’ve taken to doing these activities at night after the kids are asleep to keep my brain engaged and thinking about possible connections to research and teaching.

Reach out. Check in with colleagues and graduate students about scholarly projects they might be mourning, and offer them a chance to talk about their research. Communicate with editors about potential delays on submission and share solutions. Email the author of an article you liked and let them know how much you enjoyed the quality of the writing or the methodology for the research. Find a newer scholar in your discipline and offer to read a work in progress. Start an online faculty writing group with interested colleagues. All of these positive moves help connect us, even if we are not on our campuses and at conferences to discuss research.

Rethink writing habits. For a few weeks, experiment. Where can you write? What can you write? How much can you do in a day? This week, for example, I learned that I could edit a manuscript while my children did an impromptu Easter egg hunt around our house. I also set the low goal of writing a paragraph a day, which means I can write a sentence an hour or a hastily scribbled paragraph before bed if I choose.

I know of a colleague who goes outside and writes in his car so he doesn’t have to hear video games blaring. One of my graduate students now writes for 20 minutes before getting out of bed in the morning instead of writing all day on Friday … and longer if her children sleep in. Many of us are using time to walk outside as time to think through bigger ideas or problems in our writing. We all are learning to adapt on the fly.

It’s true: we are in a global health crisis, and none of these above tasks are essential in the face of a pandemic. Nor can I claim that they will necessarily increase our publication output. But we can complete many of them in between managing everything else we’re dealing with, and they can at least give us a small sense of moving forward on our research agendas in an uncertain time.

Bio

Christine Tulley is a professor of English, director of the master of arts in rhetoric and writing program, and academic career development coordinator at the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Findlay. She is the author of How Writing Faculty Write (Utah State University Press, 2018).

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